Corporate Case Study: NCBA keeps cool despite latest mad cow concerns

When a case of mad cow was reported in Washington last year, the NCBA already had a crisis strategy in place. These days, the group remains proactive during a time of regulatory change.

When a case of mad cow was reported in Washington last year, the NCBA already had a crisis strategy in place. These days, the group remains proactive during a time of regulatory change.

Ever since Britain's mad cow epidemic, the US - and especially its $70 billion beef industry - has been on alert for any sign of a similar problem. Last December 23 it came, and things haven't been the same since. A cow in the small town of Mabton in southern Washington came down with the disease, triggering a crisis communications plan developed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), in conjunction with the Washington State Beef Commission (WSBC), in case of an outbreak in the US. "We coordinated a crisis response team to prepare for that possibility," says WSBC executive director Patti Brumbach. "Our goal was to assure the public that the market for beef and dairy products is stable, producers are well informed, and consumers continue to have confidence in the industry." Besides maintaining consumer confidence statewide in the beef and dairy industries and their products, explains Brumbach, "our consumer-response plan was designed to provide for and facilitate communication between the industry and government organizations managing the issue." At the national level, the NCBA - which represents more than 230,000 cattlemen through its state affiliates - coordinates the industry response and champions their concerns in Washington, DC. It also directs the Beef Checkoff Program, a federally mandated assessment on cattle sales to "strengthen the position of beef in the marketplace and to maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets and uses for beef and beef products," says Rick McCarty, the association's executive director for issues management. The program also funds PR and communications initiatives for the NCBA and WSBC, as well as the groups' ongoing research of and response to mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). "We are also the creative and culinary engine behind beef new-product development," says McCarty, "and we direct beef research on multiple fronts, ranging from genetics and pathogen reduction to tenderness and human nutrition, as well as consumer public-opinion analysis." So when mad cow struck in Washington, the NCBA took the lead in communicating consistent, science-based messages with state industry organizations across the nation about the disease. Crisis plan takes hold "That single BSE event in Washington state has basically changed the fundamental economic architecture of the beef industry," McCarty says. "As a result of the mad cow situation in Europe, we had developed new communications and logistics plans, including a crisis website [www.bseinfo.org] with current details on the situation in anticipation of the broad media coverage that might develop." Traffic on that site quickly spiked, with more than a million unique visitors since December 23. And traffic remains high, largely through people seeking information regarding the US Department of Agriculture's enhanced surveillance program. "After a brief decline, demand for beef, which has risen 16% since 1998, has continued to rise along with prices," asserts McCarty. "So the effect of the BSE event on both the consumer market and the cattle market has ended. To date, consumer confidence in beef remains very strong." In fact, the industry has introduced 2,100 new products in the past five years, notes Michele Peterson, the NCBA's director of food safety PR. "So people are clearly passionate about beef, and they want assurance that it's safe. The confidence level is now very strong, but many of the consumers' concerns, which do rise whenever testing is in the news, reflect media coverage." The NCBA is always prepared in the event of another case of mad cow disease, adds McCarty. But it's a different process than preparing for that initial case in 2003. The association's challenge these days is to follow some of the standard crisis communications procedures, including centralizing the spokesperson role and developing coherent, consistent messaging so that all audiences hear the same message, whether it's from the NCBA or any of its state affiliates. The NCBA's affiliated state organizations play an important role in the overall PR effort. They, in turn, keep the industry's various stakeholders, including retail and food-service institutions and human/animal health experts, abreast of developments. Not the least among other information targets, of course, are politicians and the media, two key recipients of the NCBA's PR outreach efforts. "The state organizations trust us as a mentor for some of their programs, and we do consult with them on a daily basis," says Polly Ruhland, the NCBA's issues management director. Although the only victim of Washington's mad cow scare was the beef industry itself, the NCBA also recognized the need to anticipate outside interests' claims of hazard to consumers. "Our problem," McCarty says, "is one of industry image, whose effect on our member companies is difficult to discern. We therefore conduct a significant amount of research to track consumers' perception of beef and their confidence in its safety." Aiding in various parts of the PR effort are Burson-Marsteller, which serves as the AOR for beef safety programs and helps focus on health and nutrition issues; Edelman, which works on the industry's nutrition programs; and McDowell & Piasecki, which helps create recipes that are fed to the media. State affiliates such as WSBC work with their local media and generally handle PR internally. In the weeks and months immediately following the USDA's announcement of the discovery of BSE in Washington, consumer awareness of mad cow disease in the US had reached 97%, and consumer confidence in the safety of the US beef supply climbed to 91%, up from 88% in September 2003, says Brumbach. Ongoing consumer attitude surveys indicate that awareness and concern has declined, while domestic beef sales and cattle prices have remained solid. But the industry did lose the Japanese, Canadian, Mexican, and South Korean markets, where about 10% of all US beef is sold, and has only managed to recoup a small part of those markets. "Fears of shrinking sales have largely not come true, perhaps due to the industry's biggest and most coordinated PR effort ever," reported MSNBC correspondent Jon Bonne. "Little seems likely to change the way Americans buy beef. The revolution will not be on the plate." The WSBC, one of the 45 state organizations that comprise the NCBA, actually started developing its own crisis team to implement an information and response plan three years ago. It then began presenting that plan to its producer members last October, just two months before the December scare in Washington. It also tied into the Washington State Department of Agriculture's plan, and became the contact point between other industry groups and the department, which in turn also takes part in WSBC conference calls to get feedback from the producers. Future concerns "As an industry, we've moved into the 'adjustment' phase of the BSE response," says Brumbach. "New regulations - including an accelerated BSE surveillance program, new animal identification programs, changes in processing beef and beef byproducts, and further feed restrictions - must all be incorporated into the business of producing and marketing beef. These new and emerging regulatory responses remain a focus of the news media." Looking ahead to another possible case of BSE, the NCBA has expanded its research to determine how consumers might react and what information they would want to have. Consumer focus groups in Denver and Washington, DC, for example, say they found the industry credible and, while they would not be alarmed by extreme activists groups, they would pay close attention to factual information from both private and government sources. Meanwhile, the industry has been quick to respond to negative messages, such as the images of sick cows used by many TV stations. Proactively, it continues to run commercials stressing the enjoyment of the eating experience, including the longtime theme, "Beef. It's what's for dinner." PR contacts Executive director of issues management Rick McCarty Director of issues management Polly Ruhland Director of food safety PR Michele Peterson PR agencies Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, McDowell & Piasecki

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